Childhood & Early Life
He was born John Eliot Crane on January 3, 1910, in Oak Park, Illinois, US as the third child and second son of Reginald G. R. Carne and his wife Grace Delafield Sturges.
His English-born father was a real estate developer and banker who relocated with family to Southern California and established the Bank of Ojai when John was only two-year-old.
When John was around five-year-old his father’s alcoholism led to domestic problems that finally resulted in divorce of their parents following which his mother shifted to a small house in Santa Monica with the children.
Thereafter he and his siblings were raised by his mother. John later adopted his mother’s family name, which she reclaimed back after divorce, and used it all through his adult life.
Amidst the financial hurdles that the mother and her children faced, John Sturges remained content with outdoor activities that he enjoyed all through his growing years, which included shooting his BB gun, riding ostriches, building wireless receivers and racing soapboxes.
The family relocated to Berkeley, California in 1923 where he attended the Berkeley High School. While at high school he participated in plays portraying characters like the King Tut’s mummy and a pilgrim.
After receiving a football scholarship he attended the ‘Marin Junior College’ (presently ‘College of Marin’) where he majored in science.
Around 1930-31 he worked at the Tamalpais Theatre in San Anselmo as a stage manager to earn a living. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1931.
He attended Santa Monica City College where he studied engineering and during such time got engaged in several odd jobs like pumping gases and painting to sustain himself.
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With the help of his brother Sturges Carne, who was working as art director in the RKO Studios, Sturges joined RKO in 1932 as assistant art director in the blueprint and art departments.
In 1934 he helped Robert Edmond Jones to bring three-strip Technicolor at RKO and the eventual success of films like ‘The Garden of Allah’ and ‘Becky Sharp’ led to his promotion as colour consultant.
He then worked as an apprentice in the studio’s editing department for four years. Moving forward he stepped as second unit director of his mentor, director George Stevens’ adventure film ‘Gunga Din’ (1939) that became a huge success.
The films ‘They Knew What They Wanted’ (1940) and ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ (1941) both directed by Garson Kanin saw him working as the prime editor.
He directed around 45 documentary films for the U.S. Army Air Corps and intelligence that were based in California, Culver City, Dayton and Ohio during the ‘Second World War’ when he served as a Captain in the Army. The documentaries were shown to the troops and among these the most notable was ‘Thunderbolt’ (1945), a 43 minutes film that he made along with director William Wyler. This colour classic that was released in theatres after two years earned him a Bronze Star.
His debut in Hollywood as a director happened when he joined ‘Columbia Pictures’ with a weekly remuneration of $300. He was delegated to direct a number of B-movies.
His initial directorial ventures included the 1946 films ‘Alias Mr. Twilight’, ‘The Man Who Dared, Shadowed’; the 1947 films ‘Keeper of the Bees’ and ‘For the Love of Rusty’; and the 1949 film ‘The Walking Hills’.
After his stint with ‘Columbia Pictures’, Sturges signed with ‘Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’ Studios Inc (‘MGM’), the famous American media company, in November 1949. Within two years he worked in seven films for the studio that included crime drama, ‘Mystery Street’ (1950); drama film ‘Right Cross’ (1950); a biopic ‘The Magnificent Yankee’ (1950); the film noir ‘The People Against O’Hara’ (1951) based on a novel by Eleazar Lipsky, starring Spencer Tracy; and the drama film ‘The Girl in White’ (1952).
The 1953 Anscocolor western film ‘Escape from Fort Bravo’ that garnered a profit of $104,000 furthered his reputation as one of the prominent action directors of Hollywood.
However after being behind the camera for so many years his real breakthrough came with the 1955 classic thriller ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ where he reteamed with Tracy. The suspense drama that also starred Robert Ryan was not only acclaimed by the critics but also proved to be a smashing success at the box office garnering a profit of $947,000. It earned three ‘Academy Awards’ nominations including that of Best Director, the only such nomination that Sturges received in his entire career.
He moved on with films like ‘Underwater!’ (1955), ‘The Scarlet Coat’ (1955) and ‘Backlash’ (1956), however he was not quite happy with the interference of the studio which led him to work as a freelancer.
His next major hit was the 1957 film with the ‘Paramount Pictures’ titled ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’, which was based on a real event that occurred on October 26, 1881. The film that starred Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday and Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp garnered $4.7 million during its first run and after it was re-released it made a whooping $6 million. It received two ‘Academy Awards’ nominations, one for film editing and the other for sound recording. A sequel of a sort of the film was made by Sturges after a decade in 1967 that was titled ‘Hours of the Gun’ in which Jason Robards starred as Holliday and James Garner as Earp.
His other notable films included ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960), ‘The Great Escape’ (1963), ‘Ice Station Zebra’ (an all-male cast film, 1968), ‘Joe Kidd’ (1972) and ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ (1976).
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1945 he married Dorothy Lynn Brooks, a secretary at Warner Bros. The couple had two children, a son, Michael Eliot Sturges and a daughter, Deborah Lynn Sturges Wyle. The couple later divorced.
He got married for a second time to Katherine Helena Soules, his fishing partner in 1984.
He suffered from chronic emphysema and on August 18, 1992, at the age of 82 years, he succumbed to a heart attack in San Luis Obispo in California.